Second Careers:  Developing a Vineyard and Winery

By Kathleen ODonoghue

It all began in 2002:  the four O’Donoghue siblings inherited the family farm in Maryland, about 30 miles outside Washington, DC. As it happened the siblings were anticipating retirement from their desk jobs, two as lawyers, a judge and an accountant, and were looking for a project to fill the free time. After taking a family trip to Napa Valley, Calif., they decided to transform the 85-acre family farm into vineyard and winery. The siblings, their spouses and children began work on the “labor of love,” what was to become Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard. Since they had little experience as vintners or farmers, the learning curve was great. It didn’t take long to learn that farmers and vintners work long, hard hours in the fields, the weather can be a major challenge and working equipment is critical to getting the job done. The daily routines were very different than they had been behind those desks.

Getting started entailed gathering advice from experienced vintners and experts. The first step was to have the farm’s location, elevation and soil assessed to determine if it was suitable for growing grapes and, if so, which grapes. After much consultation, an order for French certified vinifera clones: Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and the five Bordeaux grapes was placed with a nursery in California. It would take 18 months for those grapevines to grow big enough to be shipped across country to Maryland. In the meantime, the land had to be prepped: the soil was turned, cover crops were planted and mowed back into the fields, access roads were installed and the vineyard, initially 10 acres, was mapped out with precision. The rows were planned eight feet apart and the locations of the individual vines were mapped 40 inches apart in each row.  The holes were dug with the help of an auger and the vines were hand-planted with care.

The family members learned to drive tractors, forklifts and ATVs and to operate crushers, pressers, augers, plows and other unfamiliar equipment. Again, the vineyard and winery work required a different set of skills from those used daily in our initial careers, but there was a certain confidence that comes with acquiring new skills and knowledge and it became a major part of the overall enjoyment of the “second career” for us.

The first 1,900 grapevines arrived from California in 2005. Each small vine was about a foot in length and a half-inch in diameter. Before being hand planted, each was hand bent to test its health and vitality. Once planted, each was tethered to a stake to assure it would grow upright and straight. Next a trellis system of metal poles and wires was installed to provide a framework for the growth and care of the vines and grapes.

Midway through the growing season, each vine and its grape bunches is inspected and some bunches are “dropped.” This allows the vine to concentrate its energy on fewer bunches whichs enhance the quality of the crop. The trellised vines are trimmed and hedged frequently during the growing season to ensure that the grape bunches benefit from proper air circulation and exposure to sun. A special high fence was installed to protect the vines and the crop from intruding deer and other animals.

While the crop was growing, a state-of-the-art winery was built adjacent to the vineyard and into the side of a hill. Over a dozen large fermentation tanks and a separate barrel room housing 200 French oak barrels were installed to complete the process of turning the grapes into wine. A trained winemaker, also in the midst of a second career, was hired to oversee the vineyard’s winemaking.

By mid-summer 2005, small grape clusters had appeared on the vines. By September, many were ripe for picking. Our first harvest had arrived. We really had managed to grow grapes on the family farm! Once picked, the grapes were carefully crushed or pressed, cold fermented and aged in French oak barrels to become wine. That first harvest, small because the vines were young, was augmented with grapes purchased from California. The combination of grapes enabled the winery to produce and release its first wines in 2006:  Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and a blend of the five Bordeaux grapes into a single meritage style dry red wine. The wines were bottled on the premises and stored for a few weeks to avoid “bottle shock” before being offered for tastings and sale.

Those first wines were well received by the wine-drinking public, fellow vintners and critics and by the end of the year, we officially thought of ourselves as true vintners: we had grown grapes, produced wine and sold our product and had done a good job of it and enjoyed ourselves in the process.

From the very beginning, our winery has been committed to producing fine wines. The quality of our wines has been recognized with many awards, but we value most the praise of our customers. Over the years, we have expanded: two white varietals were added as well as two sweet wines. We have produced several dry red blends in recent years.  Time has allowed us to produce reserve wines and we even have mulled wine and sangria as seasonal offerings.

The first tastings of the wines were available to the public in a temporary tasting room, a tent beside the winery. Within a couple years, Sugarloaf was able to transform its barn, originally used to house cattle and store hay, into a permanent tasting room and case storage facility. The tasting room has expanded to include a patio, several areas of picnic tables and outside space.  We have been named “the best” winery by local polls and most recently cited as “best” vineyard/winery by Washingtonian magazine.

Over the years, the operation has grown. The vineyard is twice as big, as is its yield. The production has grown from 1,000 cases to 5,000 annually. The tasting room is well-known and popular and overflow crowds are common on weekends in the Spring, Summer and Fall. Sales continue to increase each year.   As many as 10 varietals of wine are available at some times and an aging program is in place to produce more reserve wines.

While we have been successful, there will always be challenges:  most notably, Mother Nature. The weather can be too cold, too wet or too unpredictable. Insects, critters and birds compete for the crop. Major and minor repairs to equipment and the infrastructure are daily bumps in the road.  But all in all, the experience has been worth it: a second career working outside on the land, growing the grapes, transforming them into wine and seeing how much people enjoy the place and its product are what make it all worthwhile.  The second career proved to be a good move for the family.

Kathleen can be reached at [email protected]







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